Remembering Bob Lanier

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Greetings everyone!

It’s been several months since I’ve posted at this little corner of the Internet universe, but I couldn’t let pass without commenting on former City of Houston mayor Bob Lanier, who passed away a week ago at age 89. Lanier’s passing didn’t surprise me much, as I had heard through the grapevine one or two years ago that the great man was on oxygen. And so it was.

The Houston Chronicle duly ran a number of stories about Lanier, his life, and career. One was complimentary, while the other had elements that bordered on a hatchet job. I first heard about Lanier when I was in my early twenties and, yes, it had to do with the political battles over rail. At the time, I was in favor of rail construction, but that was before I had traveled a fair chunk of the world, had read extensively on economics, history, urban areas, and had contemplated such issues as how affluent people behave. I left the U.S. to work in Asia during 1991-1992, during the time when Lanier’s irritations and disputes with Mayor Kathy Whitmire came to a head. I remember watching the results of the November 1991 elections from afar on CNN (back when CNN was respectable) in a ritzy five star hotel in Beijing, and being stunned by the news that Whitmire had been defeated in the election. I had received a letter from a school friend in which he described how Houston had been hit by a massive crime wave. I didn’t know what to think, but chalked it up to the slow, dragging economy that America had at that time. I didn’t find out about the nasty runoff campaign between Lanier and Sylvester Turner until many months after I came back home.

My recollection of Lanier’s time in office was that it seemed crime was coming down, which it was. I also remember seeing quite a bit of construction going on. One program Lanier implemented was a “Neighborhoods to Standards” program, with white signs everywhere denoting that monies were being spent. I also remember the ongoing battles over what to do about Allen Parkway Village, with government housing occupying a choice area of real estate close to downtown. I also recall the reconstruction of Interstate 45 through downtown Houston. The old road was famous (or infamous!) for giving motorists an extremely bumpy ride as they drove through its elevated portions in downtown Houston. Strangely enough, after untold millions and several years of reconstruction, the road was reopened… only to have the exact same problem! To this day, hapless drivers have to put up with bouncing up and down as they drive through downtown along I-45! Lanier admitted to mistakes made later on, which I thought were among the first fallout issues arising from term limits.

Lanier as the Robert Walpole of Houston

The Houston Chronicle semi-hatchet story noted what was long known in local circles, namely that in addition to looking at Houston’s interests, Lanier made sure he looked after his own. Lanier owned 1,700 acres of land in the Katy Prairie (and probably more land elsewhere), and saw to it that state roads were commissioned to run through Houston’s western suburban fringe when he was chairman of the Texas State Highway Commission.

Back in 2007, I attended a town hall meeting held at the George R. Brown Convention Center, where Lanier was one of four panelists who spoke about transportation, land use, and Houston’s future. During his 20-30 minutes of speaking, he bluntly and quite forthrightly told the audience of some 1,000 attendees that he had spent plenty of his time in smoke filled rooms when the big decisions were being made. It would be a chore, 30 years later, to track down exactly how it was that Lanier got himself appointed to the State Highway Commission, but it’s not hard to imagine a plausible scenario: A well timed – and very generous – campaign contribution to former Texas governor Mark White’s political war chest, either by Lanier acting alone or perhaps by Lanier acting as a bundler for a group of landowners who, like him, owned property out in Houston’s far western reaches, would have likely sufficed. Then it would have been a matter of Lanier using his power to steer billions in state road tax monies towards Houston, and mixing some of those monies to get those roads done that might benefit him. That is what is otherwise known as taking care of “bidness.”

As someone who is of a historical bent, Lanier reminds me of the man many historians consider to be Britain’s first prime minister, Robert Walpole. Walpole, who dominated British politics for over 20 years in the early 18th century, saw to it that in addition to looking after the interests of the United Kingdom, he looked after his own. A testament to the fortune Walpole amassed for himself when he occupied the pinnacle of political power in Britain can be seen by visiting Walpole’s home, Houghton Hall, along with the 1,000 acres of stately gardens that surround it.

Being of a rather libertarian bent, it’s easy for me to get jaded about people like Lanier (or Walpole, for that matter), and rail about the corruption inherent in government. However, the realist in me knows that government isn’t going away any time soon. When I think of what Lanier did, one big issue comes to mind: Did his actions concerning transportation benefit others, in addition to himself? Well, looking at things that way, Lanier’s role in Houston’s westward suburbanization comes to be seen in another light. Ten years ago, the stretch of Interstate 10 that passed through Katy, Texas used to have only four exits. Two months ago, I went to a Halloween house party held by some friends of mine who live outside Katy and noticed that there are now nine exits. Construction is going on everywhere out there.

That should tell you much about Lanier’s business and political acumen. Lanier built it, and the people really did come. And, with 80 percent of the Houston area’s new population growth occurring outside Beltway 8, the process of suburbanization continues apace.

Lanier and the issue of suburbanization

The Economist magazine recently ran a story in its print edition about the issue of suburbanization in the emerging/developing world. It seems the developing world is sprawling out, much the same way that America and Western Europe did during the 20th century. The question becomes, what if anything, should local governments do about it?

Well, we already know what has been tried in America and in Europe. In some places, draconian land-use restrictions were put into place, such as urban growth boundaries. However, all that did — besides run over people’s property rights — was cause suburbanization to leapfrog the growth boundary and continue beyond it. The Economist correctly notes that the primary driver of suburbanization (or sprawl) is not necessarily tax breaks for home ownership, or zoning (which can be used to try to stop sprawl). Rather, the main culprit is rising economic affluence for the masses and the hoi polloi. Year after year, the housing industry in America has conducted surveys on housing preferences. After all, if you don’t understand what people want to buy, then you go out of business, right? And, the results of those surveys consistently indicate that most people would prefer to buy a single family house, even if their dream home is in a neighborhood designed for Smart Growth. The large majority of Americans aren’t all that interested in living six stories up, and it’s usually more expensive to build up than it is to build out. The cheapest way to accommodate newcomers is to build on the cheapest land, which usually happens to be on the suburban fringe.

So, we return to the issue of what governments should do to deal with suburbanization? Well, as The Economist article does recommend, perhaps the best thing for local government to try to do is to acquire swaths of land for parks and utilities, as well as for road and highway construction, while land is still open and unoccupied. Then, lay down the ground work of infrastructure as the suburbanization presses towards the area in question so that it is ready when the people do come.

And that is exactly what Bob Lanier did, and no doubt Bob Lanier became very rich giving people what they wanted!

Robert Clayton Lanier, may you rest in peace.